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Keep in mind the basics of holiday eating safety

By By CAROLYN BIVINS Extension Agent
Laura, an Executive Secretary, is constantly on the go, has been planning a lavish holiday party for out-of-town guests for weeks, full of all those things that make the holidays so memorable -- baked turkey and ham and finger foods of every taste, shape and description.
Yet, like so many busy people, Laura has to squeeze the time for food preparation in between staff meetings, business luncheons and overnight trips. In her rush to juggle all of these demands, she may end up putting her guests at serious risk of foodborne illness.
She's not alone. Millions of us Americans, in our haste to keep pace with all the demands of the holiday season, are likely to overlook basic hygienic practices around the kitchen. The fact that only one drop of juice from a contaminated turkey or chicken is enough to cause food poisoning is a strong incentive to follow these basic practices carefully, said Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and foods.
Following are what Weese describes as the four basics of holiday food preparation:
Wash Your Hands
Mom's constant admonishment to wash your hands is the cornerstone of safe food handling and preparation. Hands should be washed a full 20 seconds before and after handling raw products.
Kitchen sinks should be used only for hand washing associated with food preparation. Hand washing related to other household chores, such as gardening, should be confined to bathroom sinks.
Bar soaps should be kept clean and left on a soap dish that allows water to drain. Otherwise, the soap is liable to become contaminated with germs like any other kitchen item. Pump-action liquid soap dispensers provide strong protection against contamination.
Avoid Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination occurs when germs from one food are passed to another. This most often occurs when raw meat, poultry or seafood touch uncooked foods such as salads and fruits. Cross-contamination also can occur when these foods come in contact with unwashed hands, utensils or countertops that have previously been used with raw meat products. This is why raw meat products should be stored on a plate or tray to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods.
Cutting boards for raw meat products should not be used for salads and other uncooked foods unless they have first been thoroughly sanitized. As an added precaution, finish preparing raw meat products and return them to the refrigerator or place them in the oven. Then, clean and sanitize your kitchen before starting work on other foods.
Dirty sponges, dishcloths and towels are breeding grounds for legions of harmful pathogens. Always use paper towels or freshly cleaned cloths with soap and hot water to wipe kitchen surfaces.
Cook Safely
The first rule of thumb when cooking a turkey is to allow sufficient time -- up to four days, in some cases -- for it to defrost in the refrigerator. Be sure to place the bird on a dish or tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to ensure none of the drippings come in contact with other foods while it defrosts.
The bird should be cooked within a day of defrosting. Before cooking, insert a meat thermometer into the turkey's inner thigh closest to the breast to monitor its internal temperature. Whole turkeys should reach an internal temperature of between 160 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
Stuffing typically should be cooked separately from the turkey. If you insist on cooking stuffing with the turkey, contact your local Extension agent for advice about how to do this safely.
Never use recipes that call for raw eggs. All egg dishes should be cooked until they reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
During microwaving, make sure there are no cold spots in foods. For best results, cover, stir and rotate food for even cooking.
Sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil before serving. Leftovers should be heated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
Follow the Two-Hour Rule
Potluck dinners are especially popular during the holidays, but they are crammed with risks if the food is left out for more than a couple of hours. All perishables should be returned to the refrigerator after two hours. Be sure to divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Also, avoid stuffing the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate for the food to remain safe.
As an added precaution, make sure the refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and zero degrees Fahrenheit or below in the freezer. Occasionally verify these temperatures with an appliance thermometer.